I used to write a lot in high school and college, but I haven’t written anything longer than an email in the past few years. In February, I decided to start blogging and through lots of trial and error, I’ve already become a better writer.
In my past month of proofreading, I’ve identified some common traps I fall into. Below is what I’ve learned.
Don’t be the Overeager Freshman
There was a guy in my freshman philosophy class who had a problem keeping his hand down and his mouth shut. He would always take a contrarian position to the professor, and god forbid you got stuck being his proofreading partner (yes, we had randomly assigned proofreading partners in a college class). His papers would be littered with phrases and words that almost fit, but not quite. You could tell he was trying to show off his vocabulary.
This is a trap I fall into frequently. In addition to having a general love of words and etymology, I spent four years earning a BA in psychology—it was basically one long vocabulary test. In psychology research articles, large words are more precise and help to keep everyone on the same page; in everyday writing, readers can find them jarring. As much as I love fancy words, I should really only use them when absolutely necessary. Big words should be for big concepts.
But Don’t Be a Dum-Dum
But don’t get too cutesy with your writing either. When I wrote my first blog post, I thought I had to dumb down my language to make it more accessible to casual, online readers. I had a lot of words ending in apostrophes (e.g. “readin’”) and frequent occurrences of the word, “ya.” It was inauthentic and more of what I thought blogging should be instead of my actual writing style.
I waited a few days before proofreading and I could almost hear Sarah Palin’s voice in my head as I was looking it over (“Don’t ya know?”).
I was trying way, way too hard to be relatable. It’s important to find a balance between formal writing and digestibility. Go too far in either direction and you’ll lose your reader.
Listen to Spell Check (and Proofread)
Even the best writers make typos and auto-correct can only take you so far.
When I proofread, I don’t just look for grammatical or typographical errors, I also look for weak writing. If I don’t immediately know how to fix something, I highlight it and move on. Once I’ve gotten through the piece, I’ll take a break. Usually within a day or two, I’ll have forgotten most of the issues I had with the piece and I’ll do a reread.
For late stage proofreading and editing, I recommend looking at your work from another medium, like your phone or a printed hard copy. It feels like you’re reading someone else’s work and it’s harder to overlook errors. My writing even has a different “feel” to me when published on my website versus in the WordPress editor.
Once you get to the point where you really, really don’t want to ever read your piece again, read it one more time. Once the dread you feel at the prospect of another proofread outweighs the shame you’d feel from a potential typo, you can publish.
Stop Qualifying Your Statements
Qualifying is for track stars and politicians. If you say something, say it outright; there’s no place for qualifiers. Limit your use of “very,” “quite”, “rather,” and the like.
I’m personally guilty of overusing the word “just.” It’s gotten to the point where I have to proofread emails before sending them just to take out any occurrences of the word (see what I did there?).
In addition to dropping the grammatical qualifiers, I need to stop over-qualifying every statement. Sometimes I’m terrified that if I say something that’s only mostly correct, an internet stranger will pounce on me and start a petition to remove my blog from the internet.
I’m also terrified of being too controversial, so I like to add qualifier statements when making an argument. I imagine various counterarguments that the anonymous internet stranger would make and try to stop them ahead of time by making them myself. Instead of making my argument, I say one thing and then put five statements contradicting it. By saying everything, I end up saying nothing:
“The best ice cream is Panda Paws. Well, actually a lot of people say it’s vanilla. I’ve also heard some good things about mint chocolate chip. These are great too; I’m just saying what my personal favorite is to me, personally. We all have equally valid opinions.”
If you need to add five qualifier statements for every argument you make, you need to either get some confidence or find a better argument.
Use Placeholder Words
If you’re in one of those lucky moods where your brain is bursting with thoughts that need to be put to paper, start writing and don’t stop.
If I can’t think of the exact word I want during these writing frenzies, I write “SOMETHING” or “MORE,”and then keep typing. Sometimes, I’ll get really lazy and write “PUT ANALOGY HERE.” The desired word/analogy will come to me later during proofreading. The momentum, however, will be lost as soon as I stop to Google something or check a thesaurus.
Just remember to remove all of your placeholders before publishing. Please contact me if you find any in my posts.
Sacrifice Your Babies
Occasionally when I’m writing, I’ll come up with the perfect phrase, the one that leaves me smiling because I’m just so darn clever. “This will be quoted in the history books,” I think to myself.
But then I proofread and realize it’s not actually related to what I’m writing about, it’s awkward, or I’ve restructured a paragraph and the phrase no longer has a home.
This is the point where I need to get over myself and sacrifice my precious phrase for the good of the piece as a whole. If it doesn’t fit into my piece, it doesn’t fit. As the type of person who frequently jams puzzle pieces into the wrong part of the puzzle, I really struggle with this.
When this happens to phrases I love, I’ll copy the offender into a new word document and tell myself I’ll come back for it in a later post. I never do.
Write a Lot
Look, I don’t have a lot of experience writing. Honestly, I’m not even qualified to write this post. But even in the short time since I started blogging, I’ve already gotten better. Just like with anything else in life, the key is to practice.
Have you heard about the infinite monkey theorem? With enough writing, even a monkey can write a masterpiece.